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  • Alistair Tait

A Simple Call for Golf Equity

It hasn’t taken long this season for this great game of golf to throw up Rules of Golf incidents that have players, caddies, spectators and TV viewers shaking their heads in bewilderment.

The sprinkler head incidents in the opening round of the WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play prove yet again R&A Rules of Golf Director David Rickman was correct when he said:

“Golfers will still manage to hit their golf balls into weird and wonderful places.”

Rickman made the statement when announcing the introduction of the, er, supposedly simplified Rules of Golf issued on 1 January 2019. I say “supposedly” because there is nothing simple about the rules that govern our great game. Never has been, never will be.

The experiences of Thomas Pieters and Bryson DeChambeau finding the same sprinkler head on the 13th hole at Austin Country Club illustrate my point. Pieters's ball came to rest in a sprinkler head beside the green and he was denied relief. DeChambeau found the same spot later on and was granted relief.


Unfortunately, a red line denoting a hazard meant Pieters couldn’t be granted relief even though it seemed patently obvious he should have been granted a free drop. The Belgian lost the hole to Tom Hoge, which could have been costly. Thankfully he went on to win 2&1.

By the time Bryson’s ball found the same spot, PGA Tour chief referee Gary Young had reviewed the earlier ruling and decreed relief would be granted for any player finding the same sprinkler head. Here’s Young’s explanation:

“Two wrongs don’t make a right. So to make the correction before Bryson’s match got there was important when we heard about the original ruling. … There was nothing we could do to fix the Thomas Pieters situation, it was over with, but just to get it right, was important.”

Seems when they painted the red line to denote the hazard, they spray painted the line too close to the sprinkler head, and since Pieter’s ball was touching the red line the official deemed the ball to be in the hazard. Ergo no relief.

Fair play to PGA Tour officials for correcting the situation, but quite how Pieters wasn’t granted a drop is a mystery.

Years ago, the late John Glover, the R&A Rules Secretary, gave me words of wisdom when I sat the Refereeing and the Rules of Golf exam at St Andrews. (Pass mark 74%. I know, I know, it means I’m wrong 26% of the time…) Glover said:

“Do what you think is fair. If you don’t know what’s fair then use the rules.”

Indeed, the previous edition of the Rules of Golf included one short law that backed up Glover’s wisdom, one that might have helped in the Pieters situation. Rule 1.4, Points Not Covered by Rules, stated:

“If any point in dispute is not covered by the Rules, the decision should be made in accordance with equity.”

Which brings us to Paul Casey’s situation in the final round of The Player’s Championship. On the 16th hole, Casey’s ball came to rest in a pitch mark caused by another player and the Englishman had to play the ball as it lay. So here’s the question: should Casey have had to play his ball from where it came to rest?

I have to admit a certain ambivalence on this one. On the one hand it doesn’t seem fair that the player who made the pitch mark could have taken relief for an embedded ball, yet Casey was disadvantaged because of another player’s actions.

Many on rules forums say Casey should have been given relief, while others say he shouldn’t, that it was simply a case of rub of the green. Many argue that the danger in granting relief in the Casey situation opens the floodgates, that those, shall we say less scrupulous, may take advantage of that loophole and claim relief in future whenever their ball is in a slightly dodgy lie in the fairway. Some suggest it could open the door to getting relief from divot marks.

I lean towards rub of the green in Casey’s situation, that it’s a once in a lifetime occurrence and it was correct he played the ball as it lay. As for the Pieters situation, surely equity should have come into play?

Two things are certain: the rewritten rules of golf are anything but simple, and this game is not always one of fair, to paraphrase Dr Bob Rotella.

What are your thoughts?

#JustSaying: “I’ve always had three rules for playing well on the tour: no push-ups, no swimming and no sex after Wednesday.” Sam Snead

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